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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 32

 

 

Introduction

Events in Jacob’s Life Up To the Death of Isaac (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 35:1)

Jacob Meets With His Brother Esau (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 33:17).

This section is built around two covenants. The covenant made with God at Peniel and the covenant of peace made between Esau and Jacob. It is probable that the covenant with God was the central one. But Jacob being a careful man (compare Genesis 25:33 and the passage built around it) would certainly want on record the details of his covenant of peace with Esau.

Even after so long a time Jacob is wary of his brother Esau. He does not know what fate Esau plans for him nor what will be his reaction to his return. But we note that he is aware of his brother’s whereabouts. He has clearly kept in touch with his family who have kept him informed.

For Esau, recognising that he now had no part in the rulership of the family tribe (Genesis 27:39-40), had aligned himself by marriage with the confederate tribes of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). He moved to the desert region and there built up his own tribe, no doubt with Ishmael’s assistance and had thus became a minor ruler over a band of warriors with whom he lived out the active life that he had always desired. With their assistance he was able to build up his wealth. Many rich caravans would pass near their territory on the King’s Highway (see Numbers 20:14-21) which by one means or another would contribute to their treasury (either by toll or by robbery) and they necessarily built up flocks and herds for their own survival.

Eventually they would gain ascendancy over neighbouring peoples until the land becomes known as the land of Edom (Genesis 36:16-17; Genesis 36:21; Genesis 36:31) i.e. of Esau (Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1; Genesis 36:19; Genesis 36:43), although originally called the land of Seir (here and Genesis 37:30). The latter name is connected with the Horites who originally lived there (Genesis 36:20) who were clearly absorbed into the clan or confederacy.


Verses 3-5

Events in Jacob’s Life Up To the Death of Isaac (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 35:1)

Jacob Meets With His Brother Esau (Genesis 32:3 to Genesis 33:17).

This section is built around two covenants. The covenant made with God at Peniel and the covenant of peace made between Esau and Jacob. It is probable that the covenant with God was the central one. But Jacob being a careful man (compare Genesis 25:33 and the passage built around it) would certainly want on record the details of his covenant of peace with Esau.

Even after so long a time Jacob is wary of his brother Esau. He does not know what fate Esau plans for him nor what will be his reaction to his return. But we note that he is aware of his brother’s whereabouts. He has clearly kept in touch with his family who have kept him informed.

For Esau, recognising that he now had no part in the rulership of the family tribe (Genesis 27:39-40), had aligned himself by marriage with the confederate tribes of Ishmael (Genesis 28:9). He moved to the desert region and there built up his own tribe, no doubt with Ishmael’s assistance and had thus became a minor ruler over a band of warriors with whom he lived out the active life that he had always desired. With their assistance he was able to build up his wealth. Many rich caravans would pass near their territory on the King’s Highway (see Numbers 20:14-21) which by one means or another would contribute to their treasury (either by toll or by robbery) and they necessarily built up flocks and herds for their own survival.

Eventually they would gain ascendancy over neighbouring peoples until the land becomes known as the land of Edom (Genesis 36:16-17; Genesis 36:21; Genesis 36:31) i.e. of Esau (Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1; Genesis 36:19; Genesis 36:43), although originally called the land of Seir (here and Genesis 37:30). The latter name is connected with the Horites who originally lived there (Genesis 36:20) who were clearly absorbed into the clan or confederacy.

Genesis 32:3-5

‘And Jacob sent messengers before him to his brother Esau, to the land of Seir, the part possessed by (‘the field of’) Edom. And he commanded them saying, “Thus shall you say to my lord Esau. ‘Thus says your servant Jacob, I have sojourned with Laban and stayed until now. And I have oxen and asses and flocks and menservants and maidservants, and I have sent to tell my lord that I may find grace in your sight.’ ” ’

Jacob sends to Esau offering terms of peace. He wants Esau to know that he is wealthy on his own account, and that he can therefore expect generous gifts. There may also be the hint that he is well able to defend himself - ‘menservants and maidservants’, those who serve in the family tribe. We may remember that from the equivalent Abraham was able to raise three hundred and eighteen trained fighting men.

“The land of Seir, the part possessed by Edom.” The land where Seir the Horite and his tribe and descendants dwelt, part of which was now controlled by Esau’s men. See remarks above. Esau appears to lead an itinerant life, partly at home with his father who was blind and needed his assistance, and where he had his own herds and flocks, and partly out with his men adventuring in the season of such activities when the demands of farming were less. It was only after the death of his father that he finally forsook the family tribe (Genesis 36:6).

“My lord Esau.” A title of respect due to an important personage.


Verse 6

‘And the messengers returned to Jacob saying, “We came to your brother Esau, and moreover he comes to meet you and four hundred men with him.” ’

The fact that the messengers were allowed to return without a threatening reply should have assured him that Esau’s intentions were not evil. And indeed had they been so Esau and his men would have arrived first. The only purpose then in allowing the messengers to return first would have been to tell Jacob what would happen to him. Esau necessarily comes accompanied by his men. He wants his brother to know that he is powerful and respected. But there is nothing like a guilty conscience for distorting the facts. What is natural behaviour takes on an ominous significance for Jacob.

“Four hundred men.” A round number meaning a goodly company. The ‘four’ may indicate that Esau’s men are seen as being outside the covenant community. (Compare on the four kings in Genesis 14).


Verse 7-8

‘Then Jacob was greatly afraid and was distressed. And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and the herds and the camels, into two companies. And he said, “If Esau comes to the one company and smites it then the other company which is left will escape.” ’

Jacob is seized with terror and he decides on a strategy to deceive his brother. He divides his possessions into ‘two companies’. There may well be a deliberate contrast here with verse 2 where Mahanaim also meant two companies. He has forgotten that his reliance is on God and his angelic messengers. But his policy is to let Esau arrive and think he has captured all Jacob’s possessions not knowing that there is a second which hopefully survives.


Verses 9-12

‘And Jacob said, “Oh God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, Oh Yahweh who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all your mercies and of all the truth which you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I passed over this Jordan and now I am become two companies. Deliver me I pray you from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau. For I am afraid of him lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children. And you said, “I will surely do you good and make your seed as the sand of the sea which cannot be numbered for multitude.”

Jacob speaks to Yahweh by name and as the God of his fathers Abraham and of his father Isaac. This immediately links with his experience at Bethel (Genesis 28:13). (He does not here call God ‘the Fear of Isaac’ as in Genesis 31:53. That name must not be overemphasised. It was particular to Isaac and useful for communication to foreigners).

He now also aligns himself particularly closely with the covenant in relation to the family tribe and reminds God of the particular promise made to him on his leaving Paddan-aram (Genesis 31:3). As He has watched over him with regard to Laban, let Him now watch over him in the face of the new threat.

The impact on his life of his experiences now comes out in a new humility. As he considers all he has received at God’s hand (with a little help from himself) he is profoundly grateful. He recognises that he is not worthy of it. He had started off personally owning nothing but a staff, and now he is exceedingly rich and wealthy.

But he expresses the fear of what Esau intends to do to him. He thinks that he intends to slay Jacob and all his family. (This will be necessary so that Esau can get back his inheritance). And he points out that this would be contrary to what God had promised about the multitude of his descendants.

This prayer is a pattern prayer. It begins with a sense of humility and unworthiness, it continues with a reminder of the promises and faithfulness of God and it seeks help on the basis of those promises. We too must ever remember that our prayers must be in accordance with the will and purposes of God. Then, and then only, can we confidently claim His faithfulness. The prayer is a sublimely personal and private prayer. There is nothing cultic about it. It is spontaneous and heartfelt.

“The least of all your mercies and of all the truth ---.” The word truth should here be rendered faithfulness. God has been merciful and faithful in what He has given Jacob.

“With only my staff --.” All he permanently possessed which was his own when he left Canaan was his staff. The servants were not his. The goods and presents were not his. Only the staff he carried was his.

“I passed over this Jordan --.” As he speaks he is looking at the river in front of him. This river is probably the one which is later called the River Jabbok (Deuteronomy 2:37; Deuteronomy 3:16; Joshua 12:2) but it is possible that as a tributary of the Jordan it was in Jacob’s time known only as the Jordan. Jabbok is here the name of a particular ford over the river (Genesis 32:22), the name which later became attached to the river.

“And now I am become two companies.” Now his possessions are so large that he can divide them into two companies, each of which appears to be complete in itself.


Verses 13-15

‘And he stayed there that night and took from what he had with him a present for Esau his brother. Two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred yews and twenty rams, thirty milch camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty she-asses (or donkeys) and ten foals.’

The giving of a gift to honour someone important was a regular custom of the time (compare 43:11) and its acceptance would indicate a willingness to treat peacefully.

The present was munificent. Again the numbers are round numbers indicating approximate quantity, although he may have numbered them exactly. But exact counting was not a feature of the times except among learned men and men of business and is therefore unlikely. It is noteworthy that of the camels and donkeys he does not provide males (except possibly as colts and foals). This may indicate that he had few of them, and those for breeding. This is evidence of the accuracy and genuineness of the narrative.


Verses 16-21

‘And he delivered them into the hands of his servants, every drove by itself, and said to his servants, “Pass over before me and put a space between drove and drove.” And he commanded the foremost, “When Esau my brother meets you and asks you, saying, ‘To whom do you belong? And where are you going? And whose are these animals before you?’ Then you will say, ‘They are your servant Jacob’s. It is a present to my lord Esau, and behold he also is behind us.’ And he commanded also the second and third, and all that followed the droves saying, ‘in this way will you speak to Esau when you find him.’ And you will say, ‘Moreover, behold your servant Jacob is behind us.’

Jacob’s tactic was simple. A munificent present received in sections so as to build up goodwill and conciliation. First Esau would receive the goats, then the sheep, then the camels which would greatly impress him for they were comparatively rare, then the cattle and then finally the valuable donkeys. And each time when Esau questioned the servants they would inform him that the gifts were for him from Jacob and that Jacob followed after.

“The second and third and all that followed.” The threeness was an indication of the completeness of the gift, the remainder a sign of full measure and running over.


Verse 20-21

“For he said, “I will make reconciliation with him (‘cover his face”) with the present that goes before me (‘goes before my face’), and afterwards I will see his face. It may be that he will accept me (‘his face will be towards me’).” So the present passed over before him and he himself stayed that night in the company.’

Jacob is quite clear that the purpose of the gifts is appeasement and reconciliation so that when they meet there will be no trouble. He hopes that they will make him acceptable to Esau. So the presents move on and he himself awaits in his camp along with one of the ‘companies’ he has set up.

Note in the Hebrew the constant reference to ‘face’. He is concerned with the face to face situation between the two. But this will pale into insignificance when he meets God face to face (Genesis 32:30).


Verse 22-23

‘And he rose up that night and took his two wives and his two handmaids and his eleven sons and passed over the Ford of Jabbok. And he took them and sent them over the stream and sent over what he had.’

The verse hides a more complicated manoeuvre. Jacob wants to see everyone and everything safely over the ford and he himself no doubt crossed it a number of times both ways. It was a difficult river to cross. But he himself finally remains on the side away from the others. The repetition is typical of much ancient literature where hearers rather than readers had to be kept in mind. Movement at night was commonplace for caravans and for herdsmen and shepherds. It avoided the heat of the day.

“Eleven sons.” Only the sons are in mind. Dinah is ignored. Daughters are regularly ignored in ancient literature as unimportant. Dinah had only been mentioned previously to make up the number ‘twelve’ as we have seen.

“The Ford of Jabbok.” A place where it was possible to cross the swiftly flowing river which Jacob has called the Jordan, being its tributary. This river flows through a deep gorge and is difficult to cross. This tributary flows east of the Jordan.


Verse 24-25

‘And Jacob was left alone and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. And when he saw that he did not prevail against him he touched the hollow of his thigh, and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was strained as he wrestled with him.’

Jacob was left alone with his thoughts. The approach of Esau lies heavily on his mind and he feels the future is very much in doubt, the future that was linked with the covenant of Yahweh. This is why he has come here alone. This is something that he must resolve.

Then he experiences a vivid and continual theophany that makes everything else relatively unimportant. Very little of the detail is actually provided. This is one of those times in Scripture when euphemisms are used to indicate something far deeper. Jacob describes it in terms of wrestling with a man all night but we are probably wrong to totally literalise the description. It signifies some awesome experience of the presence and might of God, possibly appearing, as to Abraham, in human form (see Genesis 18:2), or possibly appearing in some dream or vision of the night, an experience which we can never grasp or understand, possibly a combined physical and spiritual wrestling of awesome effect. Certainly he is aware that he is somehow wrestling with God and so powerful is the impact on his body that his thigh is put out of joint.

There can be little doubt that this wrestling is related to his seemingly doubtful future in the light of Esau’s approach. It is the depth of his uncertainly and fear about the future that brings him to this point. He had had such hopes for the future, but now he is fearful that they will all fail. It is this that results in this pneumatic experience.

To picture it in terms of some strange man who arrives and wrestles with him whom he afterwards discovers to be God is to trivialise the whole scene. It is quite clear that Jacob knows from the start that he is dealing with God Himself. Thus it may be that we are to see it as some vivid dream which portrays a spiritual reality that is unfolding. Jacob is clearly a man who receives dreams and visions (Genesis 28:12; Genesis 31:3 with Genesis 31:10-11). Or it may be that God does appear physically in some unique way for some unique purpose. We remember how He so appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:2). We can never finally know. What we can know is that God came with an offer to Jacob that demanded extreme effort and sacrifice and that Jacob finally prevailed.

“When He saw that he did not prevail against him.” The first ‘He’ is God. This can hardly be in the wrestling. No one would suggest that God could not defeat Jacob. The point was that though Jacob could not defeat God he clung to Him and would not himself accept defeat. God could not, as it were, escape because Jacob was so desperate. He was clinging to God.

“He touched the hollow of his thigh.” That is, God touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh. The touch need not have been physical. It simply means that God disabled him to further bring home to him his weakness.


Verse 26

‘And he said, “Let me go for the day is breaking.” And he said, “I will not let you go except you bless me.”

“The day is breaking.” The exertions that are possible at night become unbearable during the day. God is not thinking of Himself but of Jacob. But Jacob continues to hold on even though crippled and exhausted so that God finally says, ‘Let me go.’ But He says it, not because He wants to be released, but because He knows what Jacob will reply. His purpose in being here is finally to strengthen and bless Jacob.

“I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob is clinging on because he wants with all his being the blessing of God, not just as a ‘blessing’ but as a life-changing experience. He is deeply aware that he has been face to face with God in the closest of encounters, and now he wants it to impact fully on his future life. He will not rest until he is sure that his future is secure in God’s hands, until God guarantees that future. God has come to him in a deeply personal way and he does not want to rest until he has obtained the full benefit of what God has brought.


Verses 27-29

‘And he said, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” And he said, “Your name will no more be called Jacob, but Israel (isra-el), for you have striven (from the verb sarah) with God and with men and have prevailed.” ’

The asking of the name in such circumstances is to seek the character of the person. Jacob meant ‘he who clutches’ and refers to the supplanting of the man Esau. Israel means ‘he who strives with God’ or ‘God strives’. This change of name marks the culmination of the change whereby ‘the grasper’ becomes the one who is determined to fulfil his purpose within the will of God. Not that he is yet perfect. But his life has taken on a new direction. He is now a man of God, ‘he who strives with God’, and his future is secure within the sovereign purposes of God, ‘God strives’. Thus is he now ‘Israel’. And this change of name is the guarantee of his future hopes.

“With God and with men.” ‘With men’ may refer to his previous tussles with Esau which have resulted in his seeming predicament, or to his struggles with Laban. But they also refer to his future struggles. The word is prophetic. The point is that he has been, and, what is equally important, will be, victor in all with God’s help because he has prevailed here in prayer.

Hosea describes the incident thus. ‘In the womb he took his brother by the heel. And in his manhood he strove with God. Yes he strove with the angel and prevailed. He wept and made supplication to him.’ (Hosea 12:3-4). As often ‘the angel’ is introduced to refer to the immediacy of God.

Genesis 32:29 a

‘And Jacob asked him and said, “Tell me, I pray you, your name.’

Jacob”s purpose in asking the name is so that he can worship and appreciate what God is doing in the correct way (compare Judges 13:17-18). He is asking, ‘what are you revealing yourself to be?’ He knows that this is Yahweh, but he has never had this kind of experience before. Yahweh had been the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac. He had been El Shaddai, the Almighty God in His sovereignty over the nations in the wider covenant. What is He now to be to Jacob? He is seeking an even greater special relationship with God.

(There is no suggestion here that he is trying to get power over God by knowing His name. We must not judge relationships with Yahweh by primitive ideas. To know a name could signify a total relationship. Compare how often covenants were prefixed by ‘I am --’ followed by a name.).

Genesis 32:29 b

‘And he said, “For what reason do you ask me my name?” And he blessed him there.’

God does not want to introduce to Jacob a new conception of Himself. There is no need for a change of relationship. He wants to be known by the names by which He was known of old. He wants continuation not change. He is the God of Abraham and he wants Jacob to realise that he is to continue the old covenant and purposes, not become involved in new ones as a result of God revealing more of His inner nature. He is still the God of Bethel. Jacob knows all he needs to know about Him.

He had revealed Himself as El Shaddai, the Almighty God, to Abraham when sealing the wider covenant (Genesis 17:1), for then a new covenant was involved. Not that the name was new, it was the significance that was new. He had revealed Himself as Yahweh, the One Who is, and Who will be what He wants to be. He would reveal Himself as the ‘I am’, revealing the essential nature of the name Yahweh, when He delivered Israel and established His covenant with them. Again it would not be the name that was new, but the significance of the name. But Jacob is to continue the covenants given to Abraham under the names of Abraham’s God.

“And he blessed him there.” Having settled the issue of His name He now ‘blesses’ Jacob. He confirms that the covenant promises will go on through him and that his future is certain. The deceitful way in which he obtained his first blessing is now forgotten. He is a new man.


Verse 30

‘And Jacob called the name of the place Peni-el (‘the face of God’), for he said, “I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved.”

This was a play on words. The site was called Penuel (Genesis 32:31) and was probably an important pass for fortresses were built there (Judges 8:8 on) and eventually a city. Jacob takes the name and changes it to fit his experience. The two forms differ only in the archaic nominal ending in Genesis 32:30. Seeing the face of God did not just mean seeing God. It meant that God’s heart was right towards him. Thus did he know that he was not about to die at Esau’s hand.

“My life is preserved.” Esau will now not be able to harm the favoured of God. Indeed he will later be able to say to Esau, “I have seen your face as the face of God and you were pleased with me” (Genesis 33:10). He believes that his acceptance by Esau is because of his acceptance by God.

Alternately the words may reflect amazement that he has seen God and lived (compare Exodus 33:20; Judges 6:22 on; 13:22). But the way God reveals Himself in Genesis never seems to cause this problem.


Verse 31

‘And the sun rose on him as he passed over Penuel and he limped because of his thigh.’

“The sun rose on him.” This may well be intended to reflect more than the weather. He had come from night into sunrise (compare Genesis 19:23).

“And he limped because of his thigh.” Jacob bears a reminder of this encounter with God.


Verse 32

‘That is why the children of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the hollow of the thigh to this day, because he touched the hollow of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.’

This explanatory information was a later comment probably added when the whole was brought together, either in the time of Moses or earlier.

Genesis 33:1 a

‘And Jacob lifted up his eyes and behold Esau came and with him four hundred men.’

The opening phrase is general. There is no necessary direct connection with a previous statement. Thus we not know how long he had to wait for the arrival of Esau. But eventually he came and with him his band of warriors. Esau has come a long way to meet his brother, seemingly out of the great love he has for his brother after twenty years of separation. But this is something Jacob cannot conceive of. He only fears his brother Esau.

Such a band of warriors would live off the land to the detriment of the inhabitants. Only the stronger groups would be safe from their depredations (compare 1 Samuel 25:15-16 which portrays what could have been the situation without David’s protection). Esau’s kindness to Jacob was probably not reflected in his behaviour towards others. He may well have seen this foray as a means of increasing his wealth as well as being as a welcome to Jacob.

Genesis 33:1-2 (1b-2)

‘And he divided the children to Leah, and to Rachel and to the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph at the back.’

Jacob now prepares his family ready for the brotherly meeting. There can be no doubting the purpose of the arrangement. If there was trouble those at the back would have a better chance of escaping. But no one would have expected Jacob to do any other apart from his preference for Rachel.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 32:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-32.html. 2013.

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